Theater Review: Side-by-side Sondheims at Stage 773

October 27, 2010

Company: Benjamin Sprunger and his women, Samantha Dubina, Elizabeth Lanza and Dana Tretta. (Photo provided)

By Bill Beard

Stage 773 is the new name for the long-familiar theater multi-plex formerly known as “Theatre Building Chicago,” located on Chicago’s easily-accessible West Belmont Avenue. The venue is beginning a million-dollar-plus renovation while going right on with its usual busy schedule of productions by several of the better “off-loop” theater companies.

Currently, they are showcasing two of the best known of Stephen Sondheim’s popular musicals: Company and Sunday in the Park with George. Both productions are well worth the admission and the trip into town.

I had feared that Company would not stand the social and cultural changes since it first came out in 1970. The revivals of 1995 and 2006 saw some modification and additions, but the basic spirit and challenges remain. How does one find any warmth, any resonating humanity in the sophisticated yet pedestrian, cynical and combative dialogue of George Furth’s original script, or even in the brilliant, but brittle, lyrics of Mr. Sondheim? But Sondheim’s music is the salvation; and only the actor-singers can build the needed bridges. Thankfully, in Griffin Theatre Company’s current production, directed by Jonathan Berry, with music direction by Allison Kane, the uniformly talented cast works beautifully together to span that space.

Set in New York City, Company’s plot follows five married, once married or soon-to-be-married couples and their mutual friend, Robert, a 35-year-old bachelor who has been unable to connect in a long-term relationship. Through his associations with his friends and lovers, he learns that while relationships aren’t perfect, they are a necessary part of “Being Alive” (the name of the song he sings at the moment of his own self-realization).

Company: Benjamin Sprunger. (Photo provided)

The current production attempts to show that these things are as relevant in 2010 as they were in the 1970s. But the human dynamics really haven’t changed all that much; and Sondheim’s lyrics and George Furth’s script are still as clever and applicable as ever. We still witness Bachelor Bobby watching his friends bicker and snipe, or fake and flounder within their own relationships, and we wonder why he would ever want to join the ranks of wedlock; until he learns that “being alone” is never really the same as “being alive.”

It’s a consistently excellent ensemble, with several outstanding performances.

Making the first two vignettes (the first a karate scene between husband and wife, and the second a first experience smoking pot) seem new and fresh in 2010 is challenging, to say the least. But with the terrific performance of Mari Stratton as Sarah, supported by Trey Maclin as Harry, the scene is hilarious; and Nikki Klix as the stoned and silly Jenny, enjoying her first blurted-out profanity, and urged on by husband David, adeptly played by Paul Fagin, manage to make marijuana seem like a new fad. Note also that both scenes resolve into sensitive moments entirely the result of Sondheim’s music and lyrics, which add the depth and warmth, especially with the rich voice of Trey Maclin in the trio, “Sorry-Grateful.”

The versatile Allison Cain is wonderfully dry and razor sharp in the role of Joanne, even when compared to the original, the brilliantly acerbic Elaine Stritch, whom I was lucky enough to see in the original Michael Bennett production in 1970.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Sprunger in the lead role of Robert does not compare quite so well with the charming Dean Jones, who originated the role (or Larry Kert, Jones’ understudy who took over). Mr. Sprunger is absolutely matinee-idol handsome, a potential stud, and actually rather endearing in his understated style. But it’s difficult to read his reactions or feelings as his friend-couples expose their foibles. Bobby’s songs should be brimming with explicit, open passion, both in lyric and music. But although Mr.

Company: Dana Tretta, Samantha Dubina and Elizabeth Lanza. (Photo provided)

Sprunger delivers them in a pleasant, at times somewhat tentative voice, the passion just isn’t enough. Therefore, his rendition of the powerful final number, “Being Alive,” never quite reaches its potential.

The rest of the ensemble is excellent, especially the two show-stoppers, Dana Tretta as Marta singing “Another Hundred People” and Darci Nalepa as Amy with “Not Getting Married Today.” These two numbers, with their impossibly complex lyrics, were flawlessly delivered; but unfortunately, the orchestra, otherwise excellently handled by Musical Director Allison Kane, was allowed to overpower the singers (especially the piano), thereby cheating the audience of some of the best fun of the whole show. Both Ms. Kane and Director Berry are to be blamed.

However, these are but minor points within a wealth of complimentary praise due the Griffin Company for an overall splendid production of a Sondheim classic. You can still enjoy this funny, but touching, show at Stage 773 through Nov. 14. For reservations, call (773) 327-5252 or visit stage773.com.

Meanwhile…

Right next door, in Stage 773’s South Theatre, is a strong performance of another of Stephen Sondheim’s more popular successes. It’s Porchlite Music Theatre’s new production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, an even more complex work of the masterful Sondheim, which opened on Broadway in 1984.

Cast of Sunday in the Park with George. (Photo provided)

After the failure of his short-lived musical Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim swore he wanted to do something entirely new. He found a new direction in the person of a different collaborator, a relatively new director and playwright, the artsy James Lapine. Inspired by the famous pointillist painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” by the French avant-garde artist Georges Seurat, the new partners created a fresh approach to musical storytelling, while assuring its compatibility with the commercial theater. The promotion materials explain that: “…this haunting musical imagines the life of the artist and his relationships with the people he painted. … At times heart-breaking and humorous, the ever-thoughtful Sunday in the Park with George explores the tension between life and art, and the choices we all must make as we weigh our personal ambitions with the demands placed on us by those we love.”

Here again, Sondheim is well served by an excellent production, directed by Porchlite’s Artistic Director L. Walter Sterns; and of special note, a fine small orchestral ensemble of seven musicians (strings and woodwinds only), perfectly balanced at all times, conducted by award-winning Musical Director Eugene Dizon.

Brandon Dahlquist as George in Sunday In the Park with George. (Photo provided)

The 15 talented actors here are nicely blended into a true ensemble. Every person on stage (each of whom, by the way, plays a different character in each act), is defined and consistent in each of his/her performances. Outstanding among them is Brandon Dahlquist, who carefully differentiates between Act I’s George of the 1880s and Act II’s George of the 1980s. Both characters are convincing and distinctive; and he makes excellent use of his fine singing voice, in particular in the well-known “Putting It Together.”

Equally appreciated is the work of singer/songwriter/actress Jess Godwin, in the intricate role of Dot, which she handles with great finesse; however, not quite as successful with Act II’s “grandmother Marie” (although she was not well-served by costume or makeup for the age role here). Excellent support is also given by the very convincing Sara Stern as An Old Lady, the impressive Heather Townsend as Yvonne, Bil Ingraham as Jules, and Michael Pacas as the Boatman, and as mentioned, the entire ensemble.

Technically, artistically, this show definitely needs to be seen. The scenery, its movability, the projections, the costumes….it’s a very “visual” experience. Not entirely successful, but interestingly conceived and realized. Although I think the technical aspects contributed to my problem with the first 20 minutes of the show. The beginning of the script seems to lack continuity, the music has very little melody of any length, often much like recitative; some difficult lyrics; plus,

Bil Ingraham as Jules in Sunday in the Park with George. (Photo provided)

the complexity of the technical aspects. Happily, Dot carries the early songs very articulately, and when George finally sings, things become solid and secure.

But as I say, this is a show that deserves to be seen. It’s not all that often produced. I recommend you catch it soon. You only have until Oct. 31. Call (773) 327-5252 or go online at stage773.com.

From the Oct. 27-Nov. 2, 2010 issue

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